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How to take advantage of heating assistance this winter

In this photo made Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2014, Paul Dorion, a driver for the Downeast Energy, delivers heating oil to home Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this photo made Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2014, Paul Dorion, a driver for the Downeast Energy, delivers heating oil to home Portland, Maine.

Inflation is the highest it's been in over 30 years and the cost of living has increased by 6% this year. Mainers are also facing another significant price increase: heating fuel and electricity costs are both going up. All of that is of concern to the Maine Community Action Partnership. That's a network of 10 community service agencies that try to connect people with government services such as nutrition and heating assistance. Megan Hannan is executive director of the partnership, and she spoke with All Things Considered Host Jennifer Mitchell.

Note: This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jennifer Mitchell: So from what we're hearing this winter could be a pretty expensive one for Mainers, especially with heating costs. What is the situation with the heating assistance such as the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP?

Megan Hannan: So certainly prices are higher, and there's some sticker shock for everything. The good news is because of the pandemic, we do have a lot more money to help people than we ever have ever had before. The HEAP program, Heating Assistance Program, got an additional $55 million. But we are not reaching as many people as are eligible for that program, though. We like to tough stuff out by ourselves and figure we can make it through, [but] we shouldn't be too proud to ask for it when when we actually need it.

So let's say somebody is considering now applying for LIHEAP is there some deadline that they need to know about, or what's what's the process?

There is not a deadline to apply, they need to call their community action agency to make an appointment. Which of course these days is done on the phone and not in person, the way it used to be. There's paperwork that comes with that, so have access to your taxes, or pay stub, you need to prove where you live, how much you're making. Then when all of that is certified, you let us know who your energy dealer is and we will then pay them. And it's usually not your entire year's worth of heating, the benefit this year averaging between $600 and $900 per applicant.

So a few years ago it was true that Mainers were disproportionately affected by these crude oil price hikes, because so many people in the state rely on oil, kerosene, propane, and so on. Is that still true this year? And at the same time, you know, we also know that electric prices are going up significantly, just in time for the coldest months. What are some other programs that people might want to consider? Or maybe don't know about?

It is still true. Certainly Efficiency Maine Trust and Maine Housing are trying to get more people to use heat pumps: your electric bill goes up, but the oil and the gas bills go down significantly. So that is a much cleaner and less expensive way to heat homes. But it can only be done you know if it's going to actually work in your home. So weatherization is another program that we do: go in and not just put windows stripping around, which helps, but also getting insulation in attics and basements. Whatever you're using to heat, whether it's continuing to be oil, or if you're getting a new heat pump or something like that, it's much more efficient, and the heat stays in instead of floating out. And there's more money for that coming as well. There's money that came down in the infrastructure bill, if Build Back Better passes, then that will also have a lot of money for weatherization. On the electricity side, all of the electricity providers have a low income assistance program. It's called LIAP, we have a lot a lot of LI-programs, the low income assistance program for energy. Right now you need to be using LIHEAP in order to get to that, but Maine Office Utilities is looking at changing the rules for that might take some time, but they are looking at changing the rules for that.

So it sounds like programs like LIAP that you just talked about, and weatherization in LIHEAP and programs that are tied to the federal poverty line, that there's a pretty good pot of federal money available for folks who are eligible. But is it enough in a year like this, where social security payments, for example, will be increasing in the new year by 6% because of the higher cost of living? Are there other people who don't get that whose incomes just haven't kept up, but they're not eligible for these programs? Do you expect that folks are going to be falling through the cracks this winter?

I do expect that. Usually when people get a cost of living raise at work, if they are getting one, it's 3-4%. And we know that that's not going to be enough to meet the actual cost of living this year. The thing that isn't changing, even though Social Security did, is the federal definition of the poverty level, and that's frustrating. [The federal government] has not changed the definition of poverty in in quite a long time. You know, government works slowly. But there have been some signs. So Social Security is a good example, with the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Program, they did after many, many years of talking about it, increase the amount of money there. So two things done, which is good, but the overall poverty level really needs to be adjusted.

Corrected: December 9, 2021 at 8:01 AM EST
An earlier version of this transcript misspelled Megan Hannan's last name.